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Back to My Roots

Let’s talk about pests, baby: Aphids edition

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BTMR 5/6

It’s the season of new growth, big leaves, more frequent watering, and, what’s that, surprise pests?

I had my first scare with aphids at the beginning of winter quarter, which felt like weird timing, but maybe they were just looking to escape the cold. They attacked my crispy wave fern (RIP) and one of my full pots of syngonium. The fern may or may not have been tossed because aphids look like bugs from hell, but despite treating the syngonium for longer than I probably needed to, I haven’t had a recurrence yet. Fingers crossed.

According to the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, “aphids are soft-bodied insects that use their piercing sucking mouthparts to feed on plant sap.” Similar to other pests this column has covered before, like spider mites and thrips, aphids just want to suck the juices out of your plant. 

These pests also have wings and they’ll fly from plant to plant dropping their little nymphs, or immature aphid babies. If you’re keeping an eye on your plants, aphids are relatively easy to spot because they produce a sugary liquid waste called honeydew, which deposits a residue on leaves. You’ll also notice the leaves yellowing and wilting, which was the biggest sign for my fern during its infestation. (But it was also a fern and they’re notoriously dramatic, which is why it took me a little longer to notice.) 

Aphids are still very small, but I’ve found them easier to spot than other pests, like thrips, because of their long antennae. According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, “they have long pear shaped bodies and can appear white, black, brown, gray, yellow, light green, or pink and some may have a waxy or woolly coating.” I’ve found the most notable characteristics are the antennae and long legs. They just look like bugs and are very noticeable, unlike thrips, which can appear to be a speck of dirt, or spider mites, which look just like dust.

Because of their size, aphids are fairly easy to treat and there are a lot of natural remedies, if that’s more your style. Some people recommend spraying the aphids off with a hose, as that will typically knock them off the plant and it’s unlikely they’ll find a way back up. Alternatively, if you don’t have access to a hose, you can soak the aphids in a bucket of water and dish soap and add in some neem oil if you’re feeling fancy. 

I wish I had used the soaking method when I was treating my aphids, because they probably would’ve been gone a lot sooner. Instead, with no access to a hose in my dorm room, I tried to rinse off the leaves in the shower. For further treatment, I regularly sprayed the plants with insecticidal soap, neem oil, and a spray bottle of water and dish soap, sometimes adding a splash of rubbing alcohol if I felt it was needed. 

If natural and cost-effective routes are more up your alley, you can dust your plants with flour, which will cause the aphids to become constipated. Incorporating beneficial insects is also an option, if you’re OK with letting insects roam your house trolling for bugs. Insects such as ladybugs and lacewings are natural predators of aphids and can help control an outbreak. When using beneficial insects, however, you cannot also use chemical treatments as that will kill the good guys.

I’ve never used beneficial insects — I’m not much of a bug girl personally — so I can’t attest to the effectiveness of those treatment measures. But it is a common practice within the Seattle plant community; I’ve seen numerous Facebook posts on the practice.

When treating aphids, and any pest for that matter, repetition is key in making sure that the infestation is treated until it’s completely gone. I probably treated my syngonium for a month before removing it from its bathroom quarantine — I’m not one to take chances. 

As always, using systemic pest prevention is key in keeping pests from showing up in the first place. This is still a practice I’m getting used to, and maybe it’s not for all plant caretakers; at some point I’ll have to recognize that not everyone is as obsessed with plants as I am. 

At the very least, you should ideally be checking in on your plants at least as often as you water them to make sure they’re happy, healthy, and thriving. A rule I follow is to treat your plants as a form of self-care — something that brings beauty and joy into your life deserves to be looked after with the same attention and mindfulness you afford yourself.

Reach Health & Wellness Editor Iseabel Nance at Twitter: @iseabel

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